In April 1916 Bohemians were coming to the end of a season disrupted by war, but in which they were rewarded yet again with the Leinster Senior Cup, their fifteenth win in twenty years. It took two attempts to secure the trophy from old rivals, Shelbourne. The first was on St Patrick’s Day, a scoreless draw watched by 6,000 spectators, the second on 1st April.
No Dublin clubs took part in the Irish League that season due to the war and several Bohemian players had enlisted with the army. But the club insisted that football should continue and they managed to maintain Dalymount Park as a playing pitch when some rugby and cricket grounds were taken over for relief works.
Half-back Josh Rowe was with the East Surrey Regiment and was wounded many times. At the end of March he was reported to be returning to duty after convalescence and, it was said, “he hopes to play football again”. Full-back J.J. Doyle had joined the Officer Training Corps in early 1916 but got leave to play for Bohemians in the Irish Cup semi-final, which Bohemians lost to Glentoran in Belfast.
Also involved in that cup campaign was outside-left Harry Willits, who was team captain in 1915-16. An English-born civil servant, he played during 1916 both for the Royal Dublin Fusiliers’ regimental team and for Bohemians. By the start of the next season, however, he was at the war front with the Dublin Fusiliers and in November 1916 was reported as wounded. He survived and was back with Bohemians in 1917-18. Bohemians’ squad in 1916, coached by the everlasting Charlie Harris, included two internationals, Billy McConnell and Johnny McDonnell, whose 1915 Irish shirt hangs today in the JJ Bar at Dalymount Park. Others included regular goal-scorers Ned Brooks and Dinny Hannon, and defender Bert Kerr, who had joined in 1915 and was to have a notable career with Bohemians, including as team captain. He also had a remarkable career as a pioneer in the Irish bloodstock industry.
On Easter Monday 1916, a Bohemian team travelled to Athlone to play an end-of-season friendly, as they had done for several years. So friendly was it that McDonnell and Hannon played for Athlone, in a team that included several army officers. (Hannon later won the Free State Cup with Athlone Town.) Neither team can have been aware of what was happening in Dublin as they played their game in bad weather (3-2 for Bohemians) and were later entertained at the Imperial Hotel and at a dance at the Commercial Quadrille Class. “The Bohemians expressed themselves highly pleased with their visit,” the Westmeath Independent reported. However, the trip was to end less pleasantly for the Bohemian team. Due to the Rising, train services were disrupted from Mullingar, and they had to arrange car transport back to the capital.
Their late return was reported in the Irish Times among the repercussions of the Rising: “Some of the [Bohemian team] members who lived on the south side of the city had to stay in Phibsborough for the [Wednesday] night and, after walking via Islandbridge, Kilmainham, Goldenbridge, Rialto, Crumlin and Dolphin’s Barn, these did not get home until Friday (April 28), at 1.30 p.m.”
While the Bohemian party were concerned about getting back to the city from Athlone the rebels were worried about the arrival of British Army reinforcements from the same location. Many of the sites occupied by the rebels were chosen for their ability to delay the troops coming into the city, most notably the engagement with the Sherwood Foresters at Mount Street bridge.
In Phibsborough members of B Company of the Dublin Brigade built barricades on the railway bridges on the Cabra Road and North Circular Road close to St. Peter’s Church. They even went as far as to try and blow up both bridges with gelignite.
While B Company was able to hold off a number of attacks from small arms and machine gun-fire, the arrival of artillery onto the Cabra Road (outside what is now the Deaf Village) and the use of shrapnel-loaded shells raining down on the bridges just yards from Dalymount Park and as far down as Doyle’s Corner meant that the Volunteers could not hold their positions. A number of civilians were killed by over-shooting shells, while 15-year-old Fianna Éireann scout Sean Healy was shot dead outside his Phibsborough home.
The rebels eventually abandoned their positions hoping to link up with Thomas Ashe in Finglas but by the time they got there he and his men had already left for Meath and the Battle of Ashbourne. Many of B Company found their way back into the city and some joined the garrison in the GPO and then Moore Street.
While there is no record of Bohemians fighting with the 1916 rebels, some Bohemians did work in the British administration during that period. Highest-placed of these was founder member Andrew P. Magill. He was an 18-year-old clerk in the Land Commission when he attended the club’s first meeting, and later a clerk in the office of the Chief Secretary for Ireland. He rose to become private secretary to Chief Secretary Augustine Birrell, who resigned in May 1916 after failing to predict or take preventative action to stop the Rising. Magill later worked in the post-partition civil service of Northern Ireland.
While Magill was serving the Chief Secretary, fellow-Bohemian Joe Irons, an army reserve who was called up when World War 1 broke out, was posted to the Vice-Regal Lodge in Phoenix Park, to what is now Áras an Úachtaráin, to protect the Viceroy.
This article was co-written and researched with Brian Trench for the Bohemian FC website where it appeared in March 2016. In later articles we will look further into the life and career of Harry Willits, report on other Bohemians who fought in World War 1, and tell the stories of some Bohemians who were IRA volunteers in the War of Independence.